The Psychology Behind Political Debate

How politicians use psychology, and what it means for democracy.

The Rise of the Political Independents

Americans are increasingly alienated from the two parties

We hear a lot about how politics today is more polarized, partisan and divisive. With partisan political stalemates in Washington over the federal debt, and similar partisan gridlock in many state capitals, the headlines are full of party conflict.

But beyond the glib headlines there are real questions: Is politics today more polarized or not? Does the divisiveness exist only among the elite or does it occur in the electorate? And what might be causing polarization?

There is evidence that Americans are become more ideologically polarized. According to a recent Pew report, "Beyond Red vs Blue," there have been some slight changes in the ideological stands of Americans in the past decade. In their 2000 surveys, 18 percent described themselves as liberal, 35 percent as conservative and 37 percent as moderate. In their most recent 2011 surveys, the percentages self-identifying as liberal and conservative have both increased slightly, to 21 percent and 39 percent respectively, while there has been a 1 percent reduction in the those saying they are moderate.* So there is evidence here for some increase in ideological polarization, though the changes aren't very significant.

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But when you look at partisanship, the trends are very different. Americans are not moving towards identification with the two parties, instead they are moving away from the parties.  That is, Americans are becoming more politically independent.

This same Pew study found that during this time there has been a 1 percent drop in the percentage of self-identified Democrats (to 32 percent) and a 3 percent fall in the percentage of self-identified Republicans (to 25 percent). But significantly, in their 2000 surveys 29 percent self-identified as independent; yet by 2011 a staggering 37 percent are now self-identifying as independent. As the Pew study argues: "...the public has become increasingly averse to partisan labels" (p. 22).

To reiterate: rather than becoming more partisan, Americans are becoming more politically independent.

Thus, there has been far too much focus on partisan polarization, and not enough focus on the growing tendency of Americans to proclaim independence from the two major political parties.

But probably more important, these changes have substantial political implications. 

Partisan independents are the swing vote, the people who largely have determined the outcome of recent elections. It certainly is the case that candidates have to get solid support from their core partisan constituencies, but they also need to appeal to partisan independents to win elections. As this Pew study shows, such an appeal was how Obama won in 2008, and that independents were critical for Republican victories in 2010 (though some of this was due to the fact that turnout among some independent groups fell in 2010, while some were swayed to vote Republican in that election).

However, it is not safe to assume that these independents are necessarily uniform in their opinions or behaviors -- the Pew study found that there are currently four groups of independents.

First, there are the Bystanders. These are independents who are tapped out of politics; they make up 10 percent of the adult population, but they don't follow politics and don't vote. They are likely to be young (a majority are under 30), and many are Latino or African-American. 

Second, of the three groups of independents who do vote, we have the Libertarians. Making up 10 percent of registered voters, they tend to be Republican and libertarian in the classic sense of the term. Next are the Disaffecteds, who are 11 percent of registered voters, and who don't like big government or corporations, and who are at this time uncertain about their economic situations; this group largely leans Republican. Finally there are the Post-Moderns, who lean Democratic and are 14 percent of registered voters; they are doing well economically, and are socially liberal.

The practical political problem should be obvious. Independent voters are not a unified group, but they will play an important role in the 2012 election. Whichever side is able to stitch together a set of arguments that appeals to these three different groups -- no easy task -- will likely win in 2012.

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*For these data, see the figure, "Shedding Party Labels, but Not Ideology" in the complete report, page 22.

R. Michael Alvarez, Ph.D., is a Professor of Political Science at the California Institute of Technology.

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